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Colorado historian Nicholas Syrett's new book "American Child Bride" is filled with anecdotes about very young women--one as young as marrying much older men. The book traces the evolution of child marriage from Colonial times to today and points to poor rural areas of the country, where the practice has always been more common than wealthy urban areas. In Colorado, more than minors have married since the year In most states, the minimum age for marriage is 18, but many, including Colorado, allow for exceptions.

When Susie King Taylor published her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, narrating the story of her escape from slavery and subsequent service as a nurse during the Civil War, the book made little mention of her marriage. Her marriage was incidental to this story. But it is also the case that marrying at the age of fourteen was not at all uncommon for a newly freed girl like Susie Baker, or indeed for many others throughout the nation in the middle of the nineteenth century. Susie King Taylor may well have glossed over her youthful marriage because it simply was not noteworthy in or in By the late twentieth century many Americans perceived early marriage as being both uncommon and backward, something that might have happened long ago in the wilds of Appalachia, but surely not elsewhere in the United States.

The autobiography is written in a folksy, down-home dialect; it was how she marketed herself as genuine. In fact, it turns out that in talking about her marriage in the autobiography and elsewhere , Lynn had misrepresented her age. Reporters for the Associated Press revealed in that Lynn had lied about the date of her marriage and thus her age at the time of that marriage: she had been fifteen, not thirteen.

Contemporary readers may think the difference inconsequential she was still plenty young, after all , and Lynn may well have lied in order to appear younger now not then , necessitating a backdating of the marriage. This was not inaccurate, but neither was it the whole story. This book tells two interrelated narratives: the first is about people in the United States, most of them far more ordinary than Susie King Taylor and Loretta Lynn, who married as minors, which is to say below the age of eighteen. The marriage of legal children, in fact, has been relatively common throughout U.

The U. Census Bureau did not link age with marital status till , which makes national figures unavailable before that time. But in that year That dipped in and then increased incrementally through the s to Youthful marriage decreased, as did the overall marriage rate, during the Great Depression. It then rose again dramatically after World War II but has been declining since the early s. That said, people below the age of eighteen continue to marry to this day. A study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that about 9 percent of contemporary American women were married before they turned eighteen.

Many of those women are now older, having married in the s or s, but they are not women of the distant past; they live among us today. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the probability of marrying by age eighteen in the contemporary United States is 6 percent for women and 2 percent for men. If early marriage has been a part of everyday life for millions of Americans, why have we have come to think about it as a bizarre exception to the rule? The answer lies within the history of childhood itself. Although earlier Americans did recognize this, the precise line of when childhood ended and adulthood began was much fuzzier for them, emerging in something close to its current form only by the end of the nineteenth century.

In part this was because both chronological age and our own ages—the s we call ourselves—were far less important to early Americans. Many people in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and indeed nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not know when they were born and had only vague understandings of how old they were. For many, precise ages were not an important part of their self-understanding.

Marrying at younger ages in such a world would be far less noteworthy than it would be for us. But earlier Americans also reckoned age differently than we do. They did not believe, for instance, that there were particular ages at which a person should go to school especially if there were no schools , start working, or get married. These things happened when a person was large enough or able enough or financially prepared enough, and those moments might come at different times for different people.

For most of American history there was no distinction between the marriage of two minors or that between one party who was older sometimes considerably so and one who was younger. Once contracted, marriage has been, and largely remains, a one-size-fits-all institution. Culturally and socially, however, observers may react very differently to these phenomena, understanding the former as perhaps foolhardy, whereas the latter could be dangerous or exploitative.

Contemporary observers may recoil when an older man marries a girl below the age of eighteen because they suspect him of pedophilia. Marriage, in this analysis, is simply a back door to that which is illegal outside of it, especially when divorce is widely available; the man can simply divorce the underage girl when he tires of her or when she ages.

These concerns are not invalid, but they were usually not shared by Americans before the twentieth century, who were far more concerned that premarital sex led to the ruin of girls who would be unable to marry and might thus be destined for lives of prostitution. Before the s, most people also did not share our understanding of pedophilia, the sexual predilection of some adults for children. Because of this, most objections to the marriage of girls or boys would not have been framed around the issue of sex or sexual exploitation.

Instead, early critics of youthful marriage worried that it robbed girls of girlhood or that it might lead to divorce. Although I never dismiss the very real imbalance in power that characterized marriages with great age disparities, in this book I also explain why earlier Americans did not necessarily see this as a problem and offer historical context for how and when Americans came to see man-girl marriage as sexually suspect. It neatly conveys discomfort and disbelief rather than having to articulate those feelings explicitly. In the United States should not be a bride because we reserve the institution of marriage for adults, indeed demand adulthood for its fulfillment.

Children who marry sacrifice their childhood and make a mockery of our understanding of marriage. But that has not always been the case. This was not because there were no children marrying before Rather, the practice was just not particularly remarkable. This was because earlier Americans had a functional, rather than a chronological, understanding of childhood.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, many Americans believed that marriage could transform into a wife who was legally and socially an adult because of marriage. Her marital status trumped her chronological age. The first, as we have seen, is that children, defined through chronological age, are fundamentally ill-suited to marriage—that they are too young for what marriage requires of them, not just sex but also the emotional maturity to be spouses and perhaps parents.

The second belief is that marriage, if not always a union of equals, is at the very least a partnership between people who can both be pd to contribute to its health in similar and complementary ways. Before the eighteenth century, children as young as eight or nine married in America, and children in their teenage years have been marrying in the United States since then. The practice is most common today in rural areas, where it remains hidden from most urban and suburban dwellers, who tend to assume that teenage marriage is a relic of the past.

So why focus on child brides? In the vast majority of marriages where one party is a legal minor, that minor is a girl. This remains the case today, when most marriages between parties of any age involve a man who is older than his bride, even if only by a couple of years. The marriage of girls became objectionable only when some Americans at first only a small minority began to believe that girls, like boys, deserved the opportunity to grow up and make the choice of a marital partner only after achieving adulthood.

And when some came to believe that marriage was supposed to be a union of equals. Both changes in belief occurred haltingly over the nineteenth century. Without those beliefs, girl marriage is not particularly objectionable, largely because it so closely resembled the marriage of adult women throughout much of American history. The beliefs that make us see child marriage as repugnant to girls and to marriage themselves have a history, one that I tell in this book.

It is also the case, however, that throughout American history, boys have generally had far fewer reasons to marry young than girls. Unlike men, women were largely defined through their marriages; opting for an appropriate mate early on in life might be the best chance a girl would have. With employment options for women few and pay generally dismal, marriage was often a way out of the natal home when no other escape existed. Boys and men experienced few of these advantages precisely because they were the ones expected to work for pay on reaching adulthood or as a means of proving adulthood itself.

For men, marriage represented an extra responsibility: the support of a wife and, in an era before reliable birth control, children. The imbalance between child brides and boy husbands is thus a reflection of cultural expectations for girls and boys. Wives were expected to be dependents, husbands to be breadwinners. These versions of child marriage—forced unions arranged by parents, sometimes the exchange of a dowry, brides below the age of twelve—are indeed different from what usually happens in the United States, where marrying girls have tended to be in their teens and have usually themselves made the decision to marry.

But characterizing child marriage as foreign whether nationally or religiously or both also allows Americans to ignore youthful marriage in their midst. From early nineteenth-century reports by Christian missionaries in India to contemporary scandals over fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints in Colorado and Utah, Americans have represented youthful marriage as something practiced only by backward people who live elsewhere or deliberately flout the law if they live here.

The truth is that many thousands of girls below the age of eighteen will marry legally in the United States this year. Almost all states have minimum marriageable ages below eighteen with parental consent ; many have various exceptions to their minimum marriageable ages that allow girls as young as fourteen to marry. In , the U. If child marriage is a problem, it is our problem as well. And much of American resistance to outlawing youthful marriage altogether stems from attitudes toward sex. Throughout U. Even as the United States has decriminalized sex outside of marriage what used to be called fornication and made illegitimacy largely meaningless as a legal category, American laws continue to promote the notion that sex and childbirth should occur within marriage, even if those having sex are teenagers.

Throughout most of American history, marriage was seen as transformative. It made illicit sex licit. It legitimized offspring. Actions performed outside of marriage that were dangerous, debasing, or immoral were transformed into safe, respectable, and moral within marriage. But marriage exists only because human beings invented it and continue to believe in it.

There is no magic efficacy in a few words pronounced by a priest or a government official. I am not arguing that marriage is not real—clearly it is—but rather that its realness depends on continued belief in its existence, which is codified in the law.

For people to be transformed by marriage, for sex to be legitimate in marriage, for women to be protected in marriage, one must believe that marriage does these things. At key moments in the past when children married, it forced those around them to rethink what marriage could really do to and for the people who entered it.

It made them confront the differences between their idea of marriage and the lived reality of actual husbands and wives. Almost everyone in these debates agreed that children were deserving of protection; how to ensure it was at issue. And for every person like Havelock Ellis who doubted the powers of marriage, there were many more who hoped to rehabilitate it.

Campaigns about child marriage in the United States are inextricably bound up in fears about the fate of marriage as a supposed building block of society. Historical struggles over child marriage reveal that marriage has always been about the privileges of adulthood, demonstrating the ways that the symbolic power of marriage continues to be a vehicle for discrimination against those who are unable, or choose not, to enter it.

The narrative of this book could be read as a triumphal march forward from a moment when children married because no one valued childhood and adult wives were treated like children anyway to one where we do not allow children to marry because we protect them and we understand the institution of marriage differently than early Americans did. There is some truth to this , in part because the incidence of youthful marriage declined over the twentieth century the s excepted.

Nevertheless, I hope to complicate this arc in a of ificant ways. The first and most obvious fact obscured by such a narrative is that large s of American girls have married before turning eighteen well into the twenty-first century. Those who would congratulate themselves on successfully protecting American youth from marriage should think again. In the history of child protection that began with the early modern legal recognition that children were incapable of rational consent and should thus be protected from adult decisions and responsibilities, marriage remained an enormous exception to the rule.

For most of American history, girls have been able to consent to the one contract that, for most of its history, was pd to last a lifetime. This is because in most cases where a belief in a protected childhood has run up against fears of nonmarital sex, preventing illegitimacy and sex by single girls has trumped childhood. It is not just that girls as young as twelve could marry within the bounds of the law in the recent past, a practice to which most of us would not want to return.

It is also that the incidence of youthful marriage has itself not been on a slow and steady decline from the colonial era to the present. Indeed, it saw one of its great revitalizations during the s. Although there are real and persistent changes in marriage over time, there are also variations that defy our expectations. So not only are those who espouse the triumphal story of marital progress partially incorrect, so too are those who embrace a narrative of marital declension: it is simply not the case that marriage once existed in only one form that has now been adulterated by feminism and interracial and same-sex marriage.

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